Shade the Raven Takes Off

Emily Cory is training her pet raven, Shade, to find lost hikers or tourists in the Arizona backcountry. Shade is already an expert at hide-and-seek and has an uncanny ability to understand verbal commands.

A couple months ago we featured a wonderful children’s book by Diane Phelps  – Shade the Raven. The story is based on Emily Cory’s companion, a white necked raven she hand raised and has been training as a search and rescue bird.

NPR did a wonderful story on Emily’s plight to find funding and support within the scientific and conservation community for her research. She is a true example of how we can apply our passion for a subject to a future that benefits science, but also our communities.

As Daniel Kraker writes,”She worked with raptors and owls at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. But she was fascinated by the one common raven there.

“She’d play horrible tricks on the volunteers, she’d get in so much trouble. She never forgot a thing, never missed a thing [and] that really got my attention,” Cory says.

Cory began to realize just how smart this raven seemed to be. At the same time, she thought about her childhood in Sedona, where she used to watch helicopters from her house searching for lost hikers.

“I started thinking, ‘Well how come nobody’s put these two together?’ Because clearly birds are easy to train — falconers have been training them for thousands of years. And ravens are super intelligent,” she says.

Hide-And-Seek Training

So she bought a raven and named it Shade. Her goal was to eventually use the bird to help rescue tourists lost in the Grand Canyon or in the rough Arizona desert. Shade quickly learned to play difficult games of hide-and-seek with one of her favorite objects — a wooden blue star.

“And soon she was finding that blue star no matter where I hid it,” Cory says. “She was looking in places I didn’t even think of hiding it, that really were very good hiding spots.”

To demonstrate, Cory hides a tube of Chapstick under a pillow. But Shade is distracted by my microphone. The bird cocks her head to the side to get a better look.

“I know, it’s too scary. She thinks that we’re up to something,” Cory says.

A St. Bernard With Wings

Cory’s plan was to bring Shade outside and teach her to spot people in the backcountry. Then, Cory would work with her to fly back and forth between the hiker and the trainer with a GPS tracker attached to her foot.

Cory was also writing her master’s thesis on the project. Despite the progress she was making training Shade, her plan hit a snag because no one would support her research.

“I actually got laughed out of a couple of professor offices,” Cory recalls. “They would say, ‘That’s nice, but let me introduce you to reality — you cannot train ravens.’ “

Understanding Verbal Commands

But the training revealed something else: Shade could seemingly understand verbal commands.

“Sometimes she responds correctly even when my back is to her,” Cory says. “For example, she loves Chapstick. She always steals Chapstick.”

The second Cory says the word “Chapstick,” Shade flies away, flips over the pillow and retrieves the tube of Chapstick.

“See, she heard me say ‘Chapstick’ and she picks up a Chapstick,” Cory says.

Back To School With A Mission

Earlier in August, Cory finally started a Ph.D. program at the University of Arizona in animal behavior science.

She’s going to start by studying ravens and language.

But ultimately, she’s hoping to find a way to put the bird to practical use — searching for lost hikers in the backcountry.”

If you would like to help Emily and Shade, you can contact her through NPR here

Cue the Hitchcock Music!

The birds are taking over. A crow patrol is scouring the streets of Kagoshima, Japan. The birds’ crime is not murder (the name for a group of crows) but instead causing blackouts by roosting among the power lines and reportedly “frightening away residents”. The patrol has been hired by Kyushu Electric, and tasked with looking for ways to reduce the city’s population of the noisy black birds.

Japan has apparently seen massive increases in the quick-witted birds, which have apparently been out-foxing the patrols by building dummy nests. (In a less quick-witted way, the blackouts happen when a peckish subject explores a high-voltage power line). This clash between Japanese city life and Corvus species parallels recent complaints by UK farmers that ravens have gone predatory on their herds; pecking lambs and calves to death in a black feathered frenzy. The Zooillogix blog gives the UK press a hard time for sexing up the story

Still the events do call to mind Alfred Hitcock’s 1963 classic The Birds. Corvus species like crows, rooks, and ravens hold a special place in the scary bird category even if Hitchcock’s film was actually about seagulls. Of course in the United States, the only thing eerie about crows lately is their absence. Their susceptibility to west Nile virus has decimated US crow populations.

Photo by Joi

To learn more about west nile virus, visit the following articles:

Earth Day: How You Can Help Corvids

Earth Day is dedicated to celebrating the lands, waters and animals that we care for the most. It is also a day to honor those people who care so deeply for nature and for the future of our natural world.

That is why we wish to thank you for supporting this cause.  You have helped to build a community of caring individuals that use their unique voices to challenge, support and inspire others into taking action for our natural world.

A group of caring individuals really can make a difference, and here’s how you can help bring nature into the spotlight today:

Send an Earth Day E-card
Use Reusable Bags

The world uses over 1.2 trillion plastic bags a year ie we are using one million bags per minute. On average we use each plastic bag for approximately 12 minutes before disposing of it. It then can last in the environment for centuries.

It’s estimated that over 10’s of thousands of birds choke or get tangled in plastic debris every year, and about 100,000 seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins, other marine mammals and sea turtles suffer the same fate, although some scientists believe this figure to be much higher.

Green Your Garden

Pesticides cause significant bird mortality each year. Repeated exposure to some pesticides can also lead to sub-lethal effects such as decreased breeding success. These effects are hard to detect but nevertheless can produce dramatic species declines over time.

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Support Your Local Foundations with a focus on birds:

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Proceeds go to support Corvid research and conservation. Everyone wins!